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Gender Roles: Where to Begin

Last October at a “Truth Matters Conference,” John MacArthur was being honored for his 50 years of ministry. At one point, MacArthur and a group of other panelists were asked to play a word association game, where they were to give 2 words in reaction to the words they were given. The first 2 words that John MacArthur was given were “Beth Moore.”

MacArthur responded with the 2 words: “Go home.”

MacArthur then elaborated on what he saw as the problem of “the church caving into women preachers.” And it went viral; thousands of people on social media responded with their takes on MacArthur’s words; some in support, most in condemnation.

The majority of social media hot takes that I saw were condemning, not just of MacArthur’s tone and the tastelessness of his comment, but they upheld his words to declare that anyone who doesn’t believe in total equality of ministry roles for men and women is a misogynist and disobedient to God’s Holy Spirit. Ironically, Beth Moore herself does not seem to share that belief or practice.

One of our problems with the question of gender roles and ministry is that we want a quick answer so that we can assign someone to a camp that we either agree with or disagree with.

That’s the easy approach, but it is not the helpful approach. Because this issue is truly one that will challenge every hermeneutical skill that we have in our toolbox. It tests our exegetical skills of

  • Understanding historical and literary contexts
  • Understanding Greek grammar and defining words
  • Understanding genre
  • Discerning between instructions that are cultural and instructions that are universal.

In addition, this issue tests all our skills of theological formulation—using Scripture, church tradition, reason/logic/science, experience and sometimes lack of experience, and culture in the correct ways, in the correct proportions.

More than anything, this topic will test the most important hermeneutical skill of all: that of humility and submission to the authority of the Holy Spirit-inspired text.

Where do we begin in tackling the issue?

I know where some people would want me to begin. This is a question I get asked fairly frequently since I teach Timothy & Titus at a Bible College. People usually expect me to begin with the challenging prohibition passages (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:12 – “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must remain quiet” [NIV]; 1 Cor. 14:34 – “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the law says.” [NIV])

When we ask the question of gender roles and ministry, most people really want to know, “Is there a line, and where do you draw it?”

Actually, I don’t think that is a helpful place for us to begin, because neither Scripture nor the Holy Spirit begin there.

Plus, if we start by drawing the line, all we do is fixate on the line.

It’s like when I take my kids to the park. I want them to be safe and not play in the street, so I tell them not to go past the sidewalk. But then the questions begin: “Can I step on the sidewalk with one foot? Can I put both feet on the sidewalk? Can I put my foot in the grass on the other side as long as I have one foot on the sidewalk?”

And my response is this: turn around and look at the playground! You have slides and swings and a jungle gym. Stop worrying about the line and go get busy enjoying all the wonderful freedoms that I brought you here to enjoy!

So where do we begin? Our gender roles begin where God gave all of us roles as His people.

That means that our gender roles begin when God created us. And our first role—and one of the most important roles we are given—is as His image bearers.

Genesis 5:1-2 says,

When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them ‘Mankind’ when they were created.”

Do you want to know what your role is? Bear God’s image.

And we can go from there and look at all the commands that are for all of God’s people.

  • The Greatest Commandment: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength. Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:29-31).
  • The Great Commission: Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, & teaching them to obey everything He has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20).
  • Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Romans 12:1).
  • Take up your cross daily and follow Him (Matthew 16:24-26).

In each of these instructions, neither the speaker nor writer nor the Holy Spirit who inspired them ever says, “As long as you’re a man,” or “unless you’re a woman.” Our roles begin with the commands that God has given to all of His people.

Let’s remember how big the playground is, and that God has given us more than enough to keep us busy.

After we look at all the roles that God has given to all His people, the next step is to take a look at the roles that God gave to women in Scripture. For example, in the Old Testament,

  • Miriam prophesies
  • Deborah serves as judge and prophetess
  • Huldah is a prophetess
  • Isaiah’s wife is called “a prophetess.”

And in the New Testament…

  • Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a walking tabernacle, as God in the flesh lives inside her.
  • Mary of Bethany sits at Jesus’ feet to learn and is the only follower who anoints Jesus for his burial.
  • Several women are prophetesses in the NT, including Anna, Philip’s 4 daughters, and women in the Corinthian Church. These fulfill the prophecy of Joel, quoted in Acts 2:17-21.
  • Priscilla partners with her husband Aquila to instruct Apollos. They host a Roman house church in their home. Her name comes before her husband’s in 4/6 times.
  • At the end of Romans, Paul greets many women who partnered with him in the work of the gospel: Mary worked hard at his side, Junia is “outstanding among the apostles,” and Phoebe is a deacon in the Roman Church.
  • In Philippians, Euodia & Syntyche contend for the Gospel at Paul’s side, and in Colossians, Nympha is a hostess of a house church in her home.
  • Paul’s words to deacons in 1 Timothy 3, likely includes qualifications for women deacons. We know from early church history that there were deaconesses in the second generation of the church.
  • Mary Magdalene is the one who announces the Resurrection of Jesus to the Apostles.

When we see all these passages together, it shows how big the playground is.

Sisters in Christ, God has gifted and called you to a tremendous array of ministry opportunities. We need to repent and seek forgiveness if we have ever limited that. It would be a horrible mistake in Bible interpretation to imagine that all this ministry was done while all these women were remaining silent and not allowed to speak.

The remaining question for us is whether or not there is a line—whether or not Scripture makes a distinction for types of Kingdom service based on our gender? It is to that question that we turn in the next article.

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